What does a Nuclear Scientist do?

D. Jeffress

Nuclear scientists work in academic, industrial, and medical settings to conduct research on the minutest of fundamental particles found inside and around atomic nuclei. Many scientists specialize in theoretical physics, performing detailed calculations to better understand the function of particles and predict their behavior in hypothetical situations. A nuclear scientist may also work in applied research, conducting experiments and helping to develop new technologies based on the principles of nuclear physics and chemistry. With the appropriate education and training, nuclear scientists can obtain jobs at universities, laboratories, power plants or hospitals, among many other settings.

Nuclear power plant.
Nuclear power plant.

A nuclear scientist conducts experiments, makes observations, and develops mathematical formulas to contribute to the collective knowledge of particle physics and nuclear chemistry. Professionals often specialize in a certain area of study, such as radioactivity, decay, fusion, or atomic interactions. Using established scientific methods, nuclear chemists and physicists design highly-detailed, controlled experiments. Depending on the nature of research, a scientist may work in a small, private laboratory or a facility that contains a miles-long particle accelerator. In any setting, it is essential for a nuclear scientist to be organized, objective, and thorough in his or her research to ensure meaningful results.

Control center at a nuclear power plant.
Control center at a nuclear power plant.

Many nuclear scientists apply their knowledge and research experience to the development of new technology in medicine and industry. A scientist who specializes in nuclear medicine investigates the potential roles of different radioisotopes in medicines, diagnostic imagining technology, and practical treatment techniques. Scientists may also help develop new plastics, metal alloys, or packaging materials at a manufacturing plant by manipulating ionic and molecular compounds.

A sign indicating radioactivity.
A sign indicating radioactivity.

A large number of theoretical and experimental physicists work as university professors either full- or part-time to help prepare the next generation of physicists and chemists for their careers. Working at a college also gives a nuclear scientist a source of funding for his or her research and access to excellent facilities and technology. In addition, he or she has the distinct advantage of working alongside highly-trained professors in other scientific disciplines.

A person who wants to become a nuclear scientist usually needs to obtain an advanced degree in the subject from an accredited college. Scientists who want to work in research and development positions may be able to find jobs with master's degrees, though people who plan on designing and conducting independent research projects typically need to hold doctorates. In addition, many hopeful clinical laboratory scientists choose to attend medical school to earn official doctor of medicine credentials.

New scientists in any setting typically begin their careers as assistants or associates. They build upon the experience gained during laboratory courses in college to develop expert research techniques. With experience, a nuclear scientist usually earns more responsibilities and gets the chance to design his or her own studies.

Nuclear chemists may be employed by hospitals, universities or power companies.
Nuclear chemists may be employed by hospitals, universities or power companies.

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Discussion Comments


@Pelestears- I have heard of something called antimatter catalyzed nuclear propulsion, but I do not know exactly how it works. From what I have read on the subject, it is being researched, but it is a very complicated process. I am not even sure if nuclear engineering can achieve this type of propulsion or if it is still in the theoretical phase of research. All I really know about it is it uses anti-matter as a propulsion catalyst to create mini nuclear explosions or pulses for acceleration. Sounds like some kind of crazy hyperdrive thruster from a science fiction movie, but I assure you the idea is real.


@pelesTears- There have been a few NASA programs that have studied nuclear propulsion for long-range space flights. The most recent I know of is project Prometheus but NASA canceled this project a few years back because of lack of funding. Projects like these are usually only funded when the government is running at a surplus. Once the government falls into deficit, these are some of the first types of projects to lose funding.

There is still interest, however, in thermonuclear rocket propulsion. The idea operates similar to a nuclear power plant except the boiling fluid is the liquid hydrogen propellant.


Does anyone know if there is any ongoing research on nuclear propulsion or other nuclear technologies for aerospace and aeronautical travel? I would think that this would be an efficient means of manned space travel over long distances.

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